The Story of the Manitoba Legislature

by M. S. Donnelly

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 12, 1955-56 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba began its existence under circumstances that were, to put it mildly, exceptional and a meaningful analysis of its early history and operation can be made only by taking these circumstances into account. In the first place its beginning was abrupt and sudden; on July 14, 1870, the area was, at its worst, little more than a primitive Métis hunting ground, and at its best, a tiny outpost of the British Commercial Empire. On July 15 it became a full fledged province with the rights and responsibilities of full self-government. There was no intervening period of apprenticeship with representative institutions such as were found in Eastern Canada or with territorial government of the type that existed in what are now Saskatchewan and Alberta. British Columbia is the only province in which circumstances remotely resembling Manitoba are to be found. Even here the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company ended much earlier. The Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was set up in 1849 and was followed by the Colony of British Columbia on the Mainland in 1858. The two were united in 1866. The point to be noted is that substantial advances toward responsible government were made in the pre-confederation period.

This late development of political institutions in Manitoba requires an explanation, particularly since other areas that were first opened up by companies like the Hudson's Bay Company provide some of the earliest examples of representative government in North America. The Massachusetts Bay Company of 1628 and the Pennsylvania Charter of 1680 are two instances among many. On the Atlantic seaboard, provision for colonization was an essential part of these early charters and grants of land to individuals. Such provisions were not included in the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company since it was created solely for exploration and trade and owes its origin to the age-old desire to find the North-West Passage.

If it was true that a tobacco plantation in Virginia required people to operate it, it was equally true that the fur trade could only be carried on where settlement was sparse or non-existent. In fact the whole history of the trade is a continuous retreat in the face of settlement and the Hudson's Bay Company, as a fur trading organization, made its last stand west of the Great Lakes.

Here the officers of the Company retained full sovereignty over half a continent for two centuries. The powers they had been given in 1670 remained substantially unchanged until 1870. These powers were full and complete. Within the Red River Settlement itself Company Rule, which was really little more than that of a seigniorial despotism, was tempered by a docile council. The functions of the government were minimal and amounted to a rough-and-ready justice and a few public works. Municipal organization had never been necessary and education was carried on by the church. Until 1860 the settlers remained unaffected by the growth of liberal thought in the world. Buffalo hunting was always of more importance than politics.

The precipitous decision to make this isolated area a full-fledged province in 1870 rested on three sets of circumstances. The first of these was the aftermath of a series of unfortunate blunders and misunderstandings on the part of the Canadian authorities; secondly, the rising nationalism of the metes, and finally, aggressive manifest destiny sentiments that were rampant in the United States.

The nature and causes of the Riel Rebellion are too familiar to need elaboration here, and only those that have a bearing on provincial status are relevant. The subject of provincial status did not come up during the negotiations between Canada, Britain and the Hudson's Bay Company for transfer of the land. Territorial status was assumed in the Act for the Temporary Government of Ruperts' Land in 1869. Riel first introduced the subject of provincial status at the Committee of Forty appointed by the citizens of Red River in 1870 to consider the proposals of the emissary from Canada, Donald A. Smith. Riel suggested that since Canada wanted the country so badly provincial status might be possible. His proposal was voted down but he put it in the list of demands anyway and on his own initiative. The Canadian government as if to atone for past blunders agreed. John A. Macdonald, in introducing the Manitoba Bill in the House of Commons pretended that the question of province or territory was of no significance: "It was not" he said, "a matter of great importance whether the province was called a province or a territory. We have provinces of all sizes, shapes and constitutions so that nothing can be determined from the use of this word." [1] There is a certain irony in all this; Riel had put his demand in the first place because he had been reading the British North America Act and assumed that control of the public domain went with provincial status. Macdonald granted the status but withheld the public domain.

However, there is more than irony; it is astonishing that responsible government worked at all in the new province of Manitoba. The people among whom it was introduced had been without effective government for more than a decade. They had little or no previous experience with the parliamentary system and in fact had been denied even the most elementary experience with local government by the highly centralized nature of the Hudson's Bay Company administration. The experiment appears almost foolhardy if one asks the question, under what conditions can the English system of government be introduced in another society with reasonable hopes for its success. Walter Bagehot, whose classic work, The English Constitution, was published in London two years after Manitoba was created, gave an answer. Bagehot found it convenient to divide the essential conditions for cabinet government into two groups, those that could be considered minimum requirements for any elective system and those necessary for the more rarefied form of cabinet government or "prerequisites for the genus and additional ones for the species."

For the "genus" the lowest common denominator was said to be, first "mutual confidence of the electors" - men must be able to rely on each other, or at the very least to tolerate each others judgment. Secondly, it listed, a "calm national mind" which could only come from a sense of security among all groups within the community. Finally, there must be a high level of general education. During the first ten years of responsible government in Manitoba none of these prerequisites was present. A less favourable situation for provincial beginnings could scarcely be envisaged, as witness the following description by a local newspaper:

"We should not refer to the events of 1869 and 1870, further than to say that they left behind them memories of the most painful character, and that a portion of the people felt that the time had come to exact a return for the sufferings. The excitement was still further increased by the presence of large bands of roving Indians scattered up and down through the settlement. These savages had been drawn up to the front by the prospects of war, had been appealed to for support and had received promises impossible to fulfill. They were hovering about the settlement in a state of near starvation living by pillage and making hideous noises with their frightful orgies. The antagonism between the English and French races divided the country into two hostile camps not only arrayed against each other but subject to the danger of collision with the hungry savages who were prowling the settlement." [2]

To this must be added the fact that all who had taken part in the resistance movement were in the eyes of the law criminals and remained so until 1875. Small wonder that the Lieutenant-Governor wrote Ottawa in a mood of complete exasperation:

"Was there ever before a responsible ministry resting on a House of whose constituents more than half were liable to be hanged or sent to penitentiary ... are the electors to exercise their functions with ropes around their necks ... you can hardly hope to carry on responsible government by inflicting death penalties on the leaders of a majority of the electors." [3]

It is, therefore, not surprising that there was a certain awkwardness and, on occasion, roughness in applying the techniques of responsible government under the parliamentary system. For example the tarring and feathering of John Bird, who was speaker in 1872, was scarcely in keeping with the best traditions of British parliamentary practice. The date of this outburst was 1872 and it was occasioned by the delay in the House of the Bill to incorporate the city of Winnipeg. Mr. Bird, the speaker, was also Dr. Bird a practising physician and he was lured from his house in the evening to see a man who was said to be ill. On his way to the patient's house, he was seized, carried off, and tarred and feathered. However, he carried on his duties the next day as usual.

Goldwin Smith was present at the opening of the first session and wrote in his Reminiscences:

"I watched the opening of the new born Legislature at Winnipeg. The approach of the Lieutenant-Governor was announced by a series of explosions intended to represent the firing of a cannon but made, I understand, by letting off gunpowder with a hot poker. The Lieutenant Governor read his speech from the throne in French as well as English. I suspect the effect on the French ears was like that of the Irish Major's address (in French) upon Prince Napoleon who in reply deplored the Major's ignorance of the Irish language." [4]

According to a local newspaper the attempted regal setting of the first session contrasted sharply with the personnel of the assembly many of whom "appeared in rough suits, coats open, no vest, collar or tie, but with brightly coloured flannel shirts and around the waist the gay coloured sash worn on the prairies." During the first session one member is said to have sent a note to a colleague suggesting that a motion be made "to go into connuity of the hole." Another, on being called to order while somewhat inebriated is alleged to have replied: "You may think I am a fool, Mr. Speaker, but I am not such a fool as the people who sent me here."

There were also many instances of a rather odd parliamentary procedure being followed. For example, in the session of 1885 the Public Accounts Committee decided to adopt the minority report written by three members of the opposition and censuring the government for financial laxness. The report pointed out that several people had been paid large sums with no indication of the service rendered, that more than 3,000 dollars was completely unaccounted for, that 20,000 dollars was voted for Printing and Stationery and 40,000 dollars spent and that the expenses of two cabinet ministers who made a trip to Ottawa ($3,628.25) seemed unreasonably high. The report ended with a severe censure on the government in which the government cheerfully acquiesced by passing a resolution that: "this House doth concur in said report." [5] The next day the opposition, moved a vote of no confidence, Premier Norquay was incensed, he was, he said, "prepared to censure himself when necessary but censure from the opposition he would not stand. He thought he knew as well as most people when he went astray and was not going to submit to the indignity of having it thrown up to him by his opponents when he had already condemned himself." [6] While the debate was raging the Clerk announced that the Lieutenant-Governor was waiting, with some impatience, to prorogue the House. The motion was not put but nearly one year later, at the beginning of the next session, it was introduced and defeated.

These irregularities are perhaps more amusing than significant. The Manitoba legislature, during the first ten years of existence enacted a spate of legislation much of which has stood the test of time and laid the foundations for the growth of a provincial society. It must also be admitted that the legislature, in spite of its complete lack of sophistication, functioned reasonably well. Why was this?

The answer is, I think, to be found in the character and personality of Adams Archibald, the first Lieutenant-Governor and Alexander Morris, who succeeded him. During his two years of office Archibald was Prime Minister and cabinet rolled into one and the Legislature took orders from him. With certain reservations the same was true of his successor, Alexander Morris and between the two of them they literally created the government of Canada's first new province. For example, the papers of Adams Archibald describe how he created the first government. The first step was to appoint Alfred Boyd and Marc A. Girard to be members of his Executive Council. He then had a census taken, divided the province into 24 electoral districts, called an election for December 28, 1870 and sponsored a government party. After that he appointed three more members to the council and set them to work preparing for the first session. He described this process in a personal letter to John A. Macdonald: "Before appointing them I discussed with them individually the policy which I had pursued and intended to pursue to see if they were prepared to give it hearty support. This they promised to do ... I called them together on the 14th and handed them a memo on the work to be done before calling the Assembly together ... in fact I gave the council a memo of 32 bills which would be absolutely necessary to form the sketch of a provincial constitution and set them to work to get their hands in." [7] A few months later he described the results of the deliberations of the council in the following revealing sentence: "If you had seen some of the drafts prepared for my acceptance you would have felt somewhat as I did when I threw them aside and undertook the labour of drafting them myself." Alexander Morris occupied much the same position and numerous examples of his influence could be cited if time permitted. However he steadily pushed his cabinet and legislature to accept full responsibility and in 1876 stated that responsible government was carried on in this province as in others.

The year 1876 marks an important change in the structure of the legislature. This was the abolition of the Legislative Council or Upper House which was composed of seven members appointed theoretically for life and equipped with powers very similar to those of the Canadian Senate. The reasons for its abolition were entirely financial. Manitoba's finances for the first two decades of provincial existence were characterized by two main facts. An excessive portion of the revenue was spent in operating the machinery of government (i.e. sessional indemnities and salaries of cabinet ministers and clerks) and a very large percentage of this revenue came from federal subsidies. In 1875 the general expenses of government, as defined above, accounted for 69 per cent of the total expenditure. To use a business analogy, it was as if a bank with headquarters in Ottawa had established a branch office in Winnipeg in 1875 and equipped it with a fifteen story office building. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to understand that a great deal of the operating revenue would have to come from the parent company and that a disproportionate amount would be devoted to overhead expenses. This is precisely what happened in the case of the provincial government. In 1875, 88 per cent of the total revenue was in the form of a federal subsidy. The "postage stamp province" with a population of 11,700, 90 per cent of whom were Métis of uncertain abode, had 24 members in its Legislative Assembly and seven in its Legislative Council, each of whom was paid $300.00 a year plus an Executive Council of five who each received $2,000 a year.

When the provincial government appealed for an increase in the subsidy in 1876 Ottawa said that the Legislative Council would have to go. Manitoba had no choice but to co-operate and a bill to do away with the Council was introduced at the next session and was passed by the legislature without debate or dissent.

However, the Council was by no means ready to co-operate with these plans for its own extinction; it rejected the bill. The bill was reintroduced at the next session and it met with the same fate. The solution to the impasse appears to have been provided by the Lieutenant-Governor who took the precaution of guaranteeing several members of the Council more remunerative positions elsewhere before introducing the bill for the third time. This time it passed both houses.

Early methods of choosing the members of the Legislative Assembly are perhaps of some interest. There was, at first considerable opposition to the use of the secret ballot. Norquay, in common with Joseph Howe, Lord Palmerston and John Stuart Mill, regarded the ballot as suspect on moral grounds. The government, he maintained, should not protect anyone who was not man enough to stand up in the presence of other folk and declare whom he was for. The secret ballot would also encourage lying; to prove his point he quoted cases in the United States where candidates had received far less votes than were promised. Not until 1883 was the secret ballot permanently introduced although it had been used on a trial basis in a by-election some years before.

The rules governing who might vote in the first provincial election were drawn up and proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor. Only those who owned real property of one hundred dollars or more could vote. The property qualification remained unchanged and unprotested until 1891 when it was dropped and the franchise extended to all males of the full age of twenty-one years who were British subjects by birth or naturalization.

It is worth pointing out that Manitoba was the first province in Canada to give the franchise to women. The movement to bring this reform about began very early. The first organization to take up the question was the Women's Christian Temperance Union which in the year 1893 organized a petition signed by between four and five thousand.

There were various attempts made for the next two decades but they were unsuccessful until 1916. Success then was largely due to the wit and persistence of a very colorful woman, Mrs. Nellie McClung. For three years before 1916 she made Premier Roblin's life miserable. At first she tried the direct approach and went to the Premier armed with a petition of great length.

She has described Roblin's attitude and answer in her autobiography: "It would never do to let you speak to the cabinet," he said, in a tone one uses to a naughty child; "even if they listened to you, which I doubt, you would upset them and I don't want this to happen. They are good fellows, they do what they are told, every government has to have a head and I am the head of this one and I don't want any dissensions and arguments. You can't come in here and make trouble for my boys just when I have them trotting easy and eating out of my hand. Now you forget all this nonsense about women voting. You're a fine, smart young woman, I can see that - take it from me, nice women don't want the vote." [8]

Orthodox agitation and the usual political processes having proved futile the women turned to the much more devastating method of ridicule. A mock parliament with Nellie McClung, who was an accomplished mimic, as premier, was held in the Walker Theatre while the Assembly was in session. Mrs. McClung, on being presented with a bogus petition from the men asking for the right to vote, is reported to have spoken as follows as a paraphrase of a recent speech by the Premier. "We wish to compliment this delegation on their splendid and gentlemanly appearance. If without exercising the vote, such splendid specimens of manhood can be produced, such a system should not be interfered with. The trouble with men is that if they start to vote they will vote too much politics unsettles men and unsettled men means unsettled bills, broken furniture, broken vows and divorce. It has been charged that politics is corrupt. I don't know how this report got out but I do most emphatically deny it-I have been in politics a long time and I have never known of any corruption ... You may be sure if anything of this kind had been going on I should have been in on it." [9]

Nothing could embarrass Roblin to the extent that he would give in and agree to proposals coming from what he regarded as a movement "supported by men who wear long hair and women who wear short hair." Only after his defeat in 1916 and the election of the Norris government did the women get the franchise. The Free Press described the scene in the legislature at the time: "amid scenes of unparalleled enthusiasm the Bill to amend the Manitoba Elections Act so as to give the suffrage to women ... was passed in the legislature yesterday. When the third reading had !been given the bill, the ladies thronged the galleries, stood up, and in rich soprano of one hundred female voices sang 'O Canada'."

The nature of the constituencies and the question of their boundaries is part of the story of the Manitoba legislature and therefore must be mentioned. Redistribution, prior to 1900 went through two broad phases, the first when the essential governing conditions were those of race and religion and the second when a moderate use of the gerrymandering idea was present.

During the first few years of provincial history the 24 electoral divisions were made to correspond with parish boundaries. As the population was then distributed this amounted to equality between English and French. The French tried to keep it this way; Archbishop Tache was a clever politician but he would have needed to have been a superlative immigration agent to have won the struggle for his people. The English received daily reinforcements in a steady influx of settlers and the redistribution bill of 1873 reduced the number of French seats to eight. In 1881 the parish basis was given up entirely and the square survey became the basis. In the same year the number of electoral divisions was increased to 29 to make provision for the rapidly growing and solidly English settlement to the west.

The doubtful art of gerrymander came to Manitoba with the redistribution of 1886 when Norquay tried his hand at drawing constituency boundaries that would benefit his party. It consisted largely of the transfer of Conservative territory to doubtful constituencies only when the two areas were adjacent and hence the constituencies retained a plausible shape and lacked some of the finer touches which John A. Macdonald had applied in Ontario in 1882.

The Greenway redistribution measure of 1892 was another attempt to protect a government by rearranging the constituencies in a more advantageous way. The constituency of Dufferin which in the previous election had been unkind enough to return R. P. Roblin, the great enemy of the administration, was abolished and divided between two ridings that were considered to be beyond hope. Roblin was thus forced to run in Morden where to Greenway's entire satisfaction he was defeated. Morris and Cartier were combined since their representatives had seen fit to desert the government in the previous session. Manitou had been Liberal in the past but after the death of the sitting member, Winram, it had returned a Conservative. The courage of the government supporters in this area was bolstered by the addition of good Liberal blood from Greenway's own constituency of Mountain. Some constituencies considered to be Liberal were encouraged to send out sprouts from which the same stock might grow, as for example, the new riding of Avondale which was formed by decreasing the size of two other constituencies. Unfortunately this sprout was a "sport" and much to the chagrin of the gardeners it returned a Conservative.

Another aspect of the story of the Manitoba Legislature concerns parliamentary privilege which in its broadest sense is the power of an Assembly to maintain its authority, regulate its proceedings and keep its independence and dignity. The history of privilege in Britain is, of course, a long one and has its origins in the early attempts of parliament to establish its independence from the monarch.

In Manitoba there was only a brief struggle before the Assembly got the right to confer privileges on its members; this struggle was with the Federal Government and concerned constitutionality rather than liberty. The first attempt of the Manitoba Assembly to confer privileges on its members and regulate their conduct was disallowed by the Federal Government in 1874. This was in keeping with the policy which John A. Macdonald had established in 1869 when he nullified similar acts of Quebec and Ontario. The grounds in all cases were that the provincial legislatures were not really parliaments. The whole question was aired before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1893 when a member of the Nova Scotia Assembly appealed a jail sentence he had received before the bar of the House. The result of this hearing was a confirmation of the powers of the provincial legislature to confer privilege and regulate their proceedings and they have continued to do so.

Members of the Manitoba Assembly appear to have been reasonably well behaved; there are, as far as the official record goes, very few cases of members being named by the Speaker. Joseph Martin heads the list; in 1889 he told the Speaker where he could go in no uncertain terms and appears never to have been disciplined. Joseph Bernier was named by the Speaker in 1928 and expelled for one month. Mr. Settnick, a Communist member, was expelled during the war but he had already vacated his seat and was being sought by the police.

Whatever the official record of discipline may say it is clear that the early sessions of the legislature were by no means dull. There have been rumours abroad that the current session is to be a lively one but I doubt that it will surpass some that took place before 1900 when seven hour speeches and all night sessions were not uncommon. Certainly there were many issues that were explosive. During the 1880s there was federal disallowance of provincial railway charters. The Canadian Pacific Syndicate had been guaranteed a monopoly on rail traffic and Manitobans wanted to get their produce to market as quickly as possible and proposed to build branch lines to connect up with the Union Pacific. Every time one of these statutes passed the provincial legislature it was given full and prompt treatment by the federal guillotine. It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of outrage and indignation and threats of retaliation that reverberated through the Assembly. Manitoba, I think, lost this round (some would call it a draw) but on the School Case of the 1890s your predecessors scored a distinct win over the Federal Government. Nominally they were led by Thomas Greenway but the strategy was supplied by the first real politician Manitoba has produced - Clifford Sifton. As you know the legislature was ordered to amend its school law and categorically refused. A special session of parliament was called in Ottawa to force the recalcitrant province into line but it talked itself to death and the government of Sir Charles Tupper was defeated in the ensuing election. The result was the well-known Laurier-Sifton compromise. In short domestic issues, roads, bridges and such played little part in provincial affairs down to 1900; when things became dull there was the federal retention of natural resources and, when it had been given a going-over, the boundary question.

The early legislature was called upon to deal with one particular question that is not, I gather, unknown to modern governments - the question was how to get more generous financial settlements from the federal government. In 1885 Norquay did get the subsidy increased by a substantial amount but the way in which it was done illustrates the fact that there has been a certain improvement in political morality since then - or perhaps our accountants and bookkeepers have become more efficient. The increase in subsidy in 1885 was largely a reward for certain favours Norquay attempted to perform for John A. Macdonald. In 1882 Macdonald extended the boundaries of Manitoba eastward nearly to Fort William; unfortunately a large part of the territory he so readily affixed to Manitoba had already been claimed by Ontario and, in fact, had been awarded that province by the boundary commission of 1878. The result was a struggle between Mowat and Norquay with Macdonald holding the coats and shouting words of encouragement to Manitoba's premier. One aspect of this conflicting claim of jurisdiction is not without a comic note. Both parties established local governments at Rat Portage, including constables, but the constables proceeded to arrest each other and the law breakers went free. When in 1883, Norquay's constables captured two of Mowat's men and confined them behind bars in Winnipeg, Mowat hinted that a declaration of war was really called for: "Manitoba", he wrote, "has treated as criminal offences, acts done by officers of Ontario in their official capacity ... acts such as these would, as between independent states have been a declaration of war". Fortunately it never came to that, the boundary was settled by legal means and in Ontario's favour. Norquay had played John A.'s game and was entitled to some reward.

Perhaps our politics has lost in colour where it has gained in honesty.


1. Canadian House of Commons Debates, May 2, 1870, p. 1287.

2. The Manitoban, Dec. 31, 1870.

3. Sessional Papers of Canada, 1874, P. 151.

4. Goldwin Smith, Reminiscences, p. 416. The MacMillan Co., 1911.

5. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, 1885, May 1st, p. 89.

6. The Free Press, May 4, 1885.

7. Macdonald Papers, Vol. 187, letter of Jan. 16, 1871.

8. Nellie McClung, The Stream Runs Fast, Allens, Toronto, 1945, P. 109.

9. L. Cleverdon, The Women's Suffrage Movement in Canada, p. 59, University of Toronto Press, 1950.

Page revised: 22 May 2010